Several years ago, my university was forced to acknowledge it has a gender problem. As a selective liberal arts university, the institution had already begun addressing its race and diversity problems among students admitted and faculty hired.
Two gender concerns could not be ignored: Women were paid less than men at the same ranks, and faculty attrition was overwhelmingly among women professors, who constitute only about 30% of the faculty.
A gender equity study was commissioned, but when the report was issued, a group of male faculty circulated an open letter challenging the methodology of the report, raising concerns about a lack of empirical data and expressing the need for quantitative versus qualitative methods.
This response certainly had an image problem—white male faculty calling into question a gender equity study—and the concerned faculty did eventually withdraw the letter in deference to the good of the university community.
However, this study and the response illustrate a serious problem in academia, the pervasive power of traditional structures (expectations about what data matter, what types of research matter, and a lingering argument that objectivity can be achieved) to serve as a veneer for entrenched, and thus rendered invisible, sexism, racism, and classism.
A parallel example is when my university seeks to increase the diversity of the faculty, that effort is always contested with “Let’s just hire the best candidate,” again often voiced by white male faculty .
“Best,” of course, like quantitative methods and empirical data is a veneer for the embedded biases that have been normalized (and thus seemingly invisible to the power structure itself and those who benefit from the bias).
White and male privilege, then, are institutionalized in higher education (see here and here for ways those privileges exist, again, invisibly to white men). Despite the popular claim that higher education is some liberal indoctrination factory, higher education is incredibly traditional and conservative at its core; only the edges appear liberal.
But, I can feel many wanting to interject, how can calling for high-quality research to address gender equity on campus and expecting candidates for open faculty positions to be the best constitute flawed practices in academia?
Let me often another example, one that calls into question the grounding of those arguments themselves, the claims of fidelity to high standards.
Another traditional practice in higher education is the use of Student Evaluations of Teaching (SET), feedback gathered from students and then used in various ways to evaluate faculty for tenure and promotion.
Notably, a significant body of research  has revealed that SET lack validity and negatively impact women, faculty of color, and international faculty (in the U.S.).
Concurrently, the use of SET positively impact the existing and skewed white male faculty at most universities, who disproportionately dominate higher ranks and salaries.
Guess what happens when concerns are raised about SET based on high-quality empirical data and quantitative studies? The same faculty crying foul over gender equity reports and hiring practices toss up their hands and say, “O, well, we have to have something.”
While some institutions have acknowledged the biases inherent in SETs, many cling to them as a primary teaching evaluation tool because they’re easy — almost irresistibly so. That is, it takes a few minutes to look at professors’ student ratings on, say, a 1-5 scale, and label them strong or weak teachers. It takes hours to visit their classrooms and read over their syllabi to get a more nuanced, and ultimately more accurate, picture.
For example, my university’s self-evaluation form and the connected chair evaluation directly instructs in the teaching evaluation section: “Give particular emphasis to evidence of teaching quality, which could include numerical results from student opinion survey forms, written comments from student opinion survey forms, and comments from faculty or other consultants visiting your classes.”
“Evidence” is bolded and then the first example is “numerical results from student opinion survey forms.” There are clear biases here that privilege an instrument invalidated by a body of high-quality research—exactly what some faculty deemed missing in our gender equity study.
Junior faculty explain, often in private, that they are aware numerical data from the SET are the most important element of their case for tenure and promotion. As well, our Faculty Status Committee has provided workshops directly detailing which data from those forms are most influential, providing, as the committee claims, ways to distinguish faculty from each other.
Virtually every college and university has a diversity and equity statement and a perpetual formation and reformation of diversity and equity committees.
No statement or committee can make existing institutional sexism, racism, and classism disappear—especially if those words and that work are forced to work within existing biased structures.
“Research is reviewed in a rigorous manner, by expert peers,” writes Flaherty. “Yet teaching is often reviewed only or mostly by pedagogical non-experts: students. There’s also mounting evidence of bias in student evaluations of teaching, or SETs — against female and minority instructors in particular. And teacher ratings aren’t necessarily correlated with learning outcomes.”
As long as calls for “high-quality” and “best” to guide policies and practices remain selective—and clearly in the service of the existing inequities and lack of diversity—we must admit the real commitment is not to”high-quality” or “best,” but to the status quo.
While not the only litmus test, a powerful way to determine if your academic institution values diversity and equity is if it continues to implement SET. Almost all do, so the answer remains, probably not.
Is Your University Racist? Bedelia Nicola Richards
 See how “merit” can work in the service of privilege in this reconsideration on Jordan Peterson:
I met Jordan Peterson when he came to the University of Toronto to be interviewed for an assistant professorship in the department of psychology. His CV was impeccable, with terrific references and a pedigree that included a PhD from McGill and a five-year stint at Harvard as an assistant professor.
We did not share research interests but it was clear that his work was solid. My colleagues on the search committee were skeptical — they felt he was too eccentric — but somehow I prevailed. (Several committee members now remind me that they agreed to hire him because they were “tired of hearing me shout over them.”) I pushed for him because he was a divergent thinker, self-educated in the humanities, intellectually flamboyant, bold, energetic and confident, bordering on arrogant. I thought he would bring a new excitement, along with new ideas, to our department.
- Boring, A., Ottoboni, K., & Stark, P.B. (2016, January 7). Student evaluations of teaching (mostly) do not measure teaching effectiveness. ScienceOpen Research.
- Uttl, B., White, C.A., & Gonzalez, D.W. (2017, September). Meta-analysis of faculty’s teaching effectiveness: Student evaluation of teaching ratings and student learning are not related. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 54, 22-42.
- MacNell, L., Driscoll, A. & Hunt, A.N. (2015). What’s in a Name: Exposing Gender Bias in Student Ratings of Teaching. Innovative Higher Education, 40(4), 291–303. doi:10.1007/s10755-014-9313-4
- Student evaluations of teaching are not only unreliable, they are significantly biased against female instructors, Anne Boring, Kellie Ottoboni, and Philip B. Stark, LSE Impact Blog
- How Student Evaluations Are Skewed against Women and Minority Professors
- New study could be another nail in the coffin for the validity of student evaluations of teaching
- New analysis offers more evidence against student evaluations of teaching
- Study finds gender perception affects evaluations
- Academic sexism: Research suggests students are biased against female lecturers
- Student evaluations can’t be used to assess professors. They’re discriminatory
- Gender Bias in Student Evaluations, Kristina M. W. Mitchell and Jonathan Martin
- Most institutions say they value teaching but how they assess it tells a different story